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Uniting the Working-Class Majority
Building a mass-membership party is not only important for creating an accountable democratic structure that expresses the will of the membership. It is essential for unifying the working-class majority to take power. Local branches should serve as forums for political education where the disparate elements of the working class can find their common interests. The working class is segmented and mutually suspicious in contemporary society. A central mission of an independent left party must be to overcome that segmentation and unify the working-class majority politically.
American capitalism is divided up into three classes structured by its central organizing institution, the corporation. These are the ruling class (about 2 percent of the population), the middle classes (about one-third of the population), and the working classes (about two-thirds of the population). The corporate form and class structure extends from private businesses into government and nonprofit agencies, with their executive management at the top, professional staff and supervisory management in the middle, and workers at the base. The revolving door of executive management between the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors keeps the ruling class in charge in all three sectors.
The ruling class could not rule without the widespread political allegiance of most of the middle class. The middle class is a mix of a declining “old middle class” of self-employed and small-business people and a growing “new middle class”—the professional, technical, and managerial employees embedded inside corporate structures. About ten million people are self-employed in their own small businesses on which they depend for most of their income. These small-business owners are caught in the middle between big business and the working class. Unlike the Populist era when many small farmers and businesses tended to seek allies in the emerging working class against the banking and railroad establishment, today they tend to identify culturally and politically with the big businesses they hope to become.
The professional, technical, and managerial middle class in corporate society is composed of supervisors, accountants, lawyers, engineers, technicians, doctors, nurses, college professors, and teachers, who by virtue of their specialized knowledge and skills have considerable autonomy and flexibility at work and supervisory authority over workers but who themselves are subject to supervision and discipline by top management in the corporate hierarchy. Some of these occupations are being increasingly pushed into the working class, particularly teachers with the advent of high-stakes testing; college professors with the proliferation of non-tenure, part-time, adjunct positions; and nurses and even doctors, who are increasingly subject to insurance company and hospital management decisions about what care will be paid for and for speedup of the patient-doctor encounter to increase “productivity.”
About twenty million work as professionals and, including their families, comprise about 20 percent of the population. Politically, they tend to be socially liberal, which is consistent with their professional standards and knowledge based in science and rationalism. But on the economic class issues, their allegiances are mixed. Some groups, notably teachers and nurses, tend to identify more with the working class as they fight to protect their independent professional expertise and judgment from encroaching corporate management.
Many others in the professional-managerial middle class tend to identify politically with the ruling class and support more conservative economic policies that are stingy on social spending for the services and benefits that workers use and favorable to policies that shift tax burdens to workers and benefits to the middle and upper classes. About half of all wage and salary income accrues to the middle-class elements of the corporate hierarchy, which makes their incomes on average more than double the income of workers and growing relative to workers. With workers widely alienated from the political process and voting at low levels, the middle class has been the mass voting base for the conservative economic policies of the two major parties.
The working class is composed of those who work as directed by supervisory management with little to no autonomy, flexibility, or authority on the job. Using this definition, Michael Zweig in The Working Class Majority put the American working class at 96.7 million people, or 63 percent of 152.7 million people in the workforce in 2010. That left 55.9 million people drawing wages and salaries in the middle and upper classes. US Department of Labor statistics put “non-supervisory” workers at 82 percent of the workforce, although that included professionals with considerable job autonomy who are not in supervisory management. For our purposes here, the exact numbers are not as important as noting that workers are the majority and the middle classes provide the mass voting base for the two corporate parties.
The working class may be the majority, but it is divided into four segments that tend to see each other as competitors, not allies: (1) mostly non-union, competitive sector, small-business workers; (2) sometimes unionized, oligopolistic sector, corporate workers; (3) often unionized, public sector workers; and (4) workers under state supervision in the welfare and correctional systems.
Crossing all these segments of the working class are racial and ethnic divisions that have divided the American working class throughout its history. About 35 percent of the working class is Black, Asian, or Hispanic compared to 22 percent of the middle class. While people of color make up 30 percent of the US population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. School segregation by income and race has been growing since the 1980s and is now comparable to what it was when Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation laws. Residential segregation is greater today than it was in 1940 and unchanged since 1950. Racial exclusion and discrimination within progressive movements has been the Achilles’ heel that divided and undermined the potential strength of every working-class and progressive reform movement so far in American history.
All these segments of the working class share the experience of being directed by others at work or in the welfare and correctional systems. They all do not enjoy the full fruits of their labor, the surplus of which above their wage is appropriated by business owners as profits and higher salaries for top management and the professional-managerial middle class. They share a common interest in pursuing public policies that ensure economic human rights to decent employment, living wages, health care, quality education, affordable housing and transit, and a clean and sustainable environment. They share a common interest in more progressive taxes and a more equitable allocation of public spending on schools and services. They share a common interest in democratizing economic decision-making and the disposition of economic surpluses so that all can enjoy the full fruits of their labor and all can participate in the planning, management, technology choice, and other economic decisions that affect their lives.
With the working class divided into separate occupational and racial silos, an independent left party must organize across these divisions to bring different segments of the working class into accessible, local public forums where people can talk about their problems and develop their ideas for resolving them. In the course of that self-education process, working people can find their common interests and break down the myths, suspicions, and resentments that divide them.
In the absence of such a party, the divided working class sees other segments as competitors for scarce job, education, and housing opportunities. The racial dimension of this competition is long-standing and well known. But any observer of the political narratives of right-wing radio, the corporate mass media, and major party politicians can see how the competitive, corporate, public, and administered sectors of the working class are encouraged to see each other as competitors rather than allies on such issues as schools, taxes, pensions, and welfare. An independent left party will have to find ways to break through these resentments if it is to organize a voting base that can elect its candidates to office.